Our gathering on 10 October 2021 was again held on Zoom. In the background to the gathering was an awareness of Black History Month and World Mental Health Day.
The chalice lighting words were by W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), African American Educator and Civil Rights Activist.
"Give us grace, … to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or the words of men’s mouths, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us—the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty—all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifices and death. …
Grant us … the spirit of Esther, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish."
DuBois was himself an agnostic, in fact some of his biographers have described him as virtually atheist.
His later life was a far cry from his Congregationalist background. He went so far as to decline to lead public prayer when so invited. He was ardently opposed to religion being taught in public schools.
In his work he wrote beautifully and with genuine passion, and yet when he wrote he drew on the images of his childhood and a shared cultural story, a shared spiritual history, despite having left certain aspects of faith behind.
How we understand shared story and tradition needn’t be a barrier between us, nor cut us off from something that has meant a great deal to many over the years. W. E. B. DuBois still found meaning in the tale of Esther, possibly because he identified with her having being racialised as a member of a group regarded as second-class citizens but also who, through good fortune, had been put in a position of influence and safety, despite living with her people in exile. And DuBois was still touched by the drama of the Crucifixion.
As he wrote, and spoke in public, that shared tradition of stories and imagery crossed the chasm between his beliefs and the beliefs of many he was addressing.
This may ring true for many of us in Unitarianism. We who come together with our different and often changing beliefs can share stories and imagery; we can share inspiration and consolation; we can share the passion of our faith. The historical tradition in which we find ourselves need not be a barrier: it can be a bridge.After our chalice had been lit, there were hymns from YouTube, which we could sing along with. And, as is the Didymus tradition, we held a period of silence in which to recall privately what we hold to be of ultimate value, and to reflect on how our recent behaviour had matched up to the values we privately profess.
As well as music and silence, as usual we had two readings, but for once they comprised one long passage split into two. The passage was taken from the Bible, the First Book of Kings, chapter 19 verses 3-16.
In the first section of the reading (up to verse 9), we find Elijah on the run from the authorities. He has just worked an incredible miracle, one of those truly ‘glory days’ moments. But how quickly the tide turned again, and now is he alone, in fear for his life, and weary unto death with it all.
This short reading brings other moments in the Bible to mind. Moses leading the people in the desert, Jonah under the tree hiding from his ministry, Jesus going into the wilderness and later in the olive garden. And running through all these moments, these narratives and images, there is a yearning for better days, days when not feeling so alone, so burdened, so overwhelmed. All of us, and all communities, think back to times where the seats around us were fuller and people did more together, agreed on more; when that call to make things better was something we seemed to share. This sense of dejection and of currently living in poorer times is something perhaps many of us will be able to relate to, to some degree.
Yet can we not all recall those balm-filled moments where just for a time we have felt refreshed, revived, lightened? Perhaps it was a sunset after a long day; perhaps the wind in the trees when our thoughts were far away; or a phrase in a book we were reading; the scent of incense in an old church we had stopped in; or the half-smile of someone, just when we needed it.
In the second part of the passage we find God asking,
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Twice God says this to our protagonist, and the words are filled with warmth and with a little sorrow. They are like the words of a parent finding their adult child weeping in the kitchen of their marriage home; or on visiting them in the big city, where they went for a new high-powered job, and finding them on edge and lacking sleep. There is no accusation in the tone, there is no sense of disappointment, nor of surprise. What is asked here is not a question looking for an answer, not really. It is a gentle reminder, a being one-with-the-other, and showing them again who they are.
In times of sadness, of weariness, of disheartenment, our vision can narrow to only what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we are not and wish that we were. It can be as if our whole being becomes defined by our lack, by our loss, by our sorrow, by our pain. It is not easy, nor always possible, to pull ourselves out of this.
May there always be someone to hand at times like this to ask us:
“What are you doing here?”
May there be a friend, a ‘still, small voice’, to reach out to us and remind us of who we are, to help us look up and beyond where we find ourselves.
May we ask ourselves often and without accusation or disappointment:
“What are you doing here?”
And may we be watchful in those around us, and those we meet along the way, for when we can be that ‘still, small voice’ that asks:
“What are you doing here?”
Today is only a moment in our stories, perhaps not even a chapter. What are we doing here? Perhaps it’s time to turn the page?